The Ascetic Philosophy Affecting the Colossians

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The Ascetic Philosophy Affecting the Colossians

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Paul warned the Christian gentiles in Colosse, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8 Colossians 2:8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.
American King James Version×
, NASB). Some believe Paul here was telling them to avoid those teaching that God’s laws regarding the Sabbath, festivals, dietary restrictions, etc., were still in effect. This notion is false, as Paul himself elsewhere taught that Christians—Jew and gentile alike—should keep these laws.

The most thorough description of the philosophy Paul was actually warning against in Colossians is found in Colossians 2:20-23 Colossians 2:20-23 [20] Why if you be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are you subject to ordinances, [21] (Touch not; taste not; handle not; [22] Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? [23] Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body: not in any honor to the satisfying of the flesh.
American King James Version×
. Its ascetic claims to superiority were based on their deceptive “appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body” (verse 23, NRSV).

Paul indicates that touting their ascetic views as equivalent to and in harmony with the basics or elemental things of the kosmos, meaning in Greek the basic principles of the surrounding world, is what gave the philosophy its appeal.

The analysis of Dr. Troy Martin, professor of Religious Studies at Chicago’s Saint Xavier University, of the grammar and syntax of verses 20-23 sheds light on the main components of the philosophy’s self-touted “wisdom” Paul rejects.

Verse 23 reads, “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence” (NRSV).

Professor Martin explains: “Even though Col. 2.20-23 is syntactically one of the most difficult sentences in the New Testament, it can be understood and adequately translated . . . [and thus provide] important information about the opposition.

“Since the practices stated in the apodosis [the results clause of a conditional sentence] are not those of the readers and since the author is warning his readers against adopting their opponents’ practices, the type of dogmatizing mentioned in the apodosis probably originates with the opposition.

“This probability is increased because v. 20, which asserts the elements of the cosmos as the basis for the dogmatizing, is congruent with v. 8, which establishes the same elements as the basis for the opponents’ philosophical tradition. This probability is further increased because the phrase, ‘according to human commandments and teachings’, used in v. 22 to describe the dogmatizing is similar to the phrase, ‘according to human tradition’, used in v. 8 to describe the opponents’ philosophical method.

“Furthermore, the explicit, dogmatic examples given in v. 21 imply a definite situation against which the author is reacting. These ascetic admonitions probably belong to the opponents since v. 23 establishes their treating the body severely and v. 16 mentions their objections to the Colossians’ food and drink.

“The reference to the reputation of the human commandments and teachings in v. 23 implies a specific, recognizable tradition that is different than the Christian tradition of the author and his readers . . .

“There are several characteristics about the opponents that emerge from this passage. First, they engage in dogmatizing based upon a particular physic [their analysis of the basic principles of the world]. Their dogmatizing arises from a consideration of the elements of the cosmos [i.e., surrounding world] and pertains to complete abstinence from consumer goods [“things destined to perish with the using,” verse 22, NASB] that do not occur naturally.

“Secondly, their dogmatizing is congruent with a self conception that they are inhabitants of the cosmos [again, the surrounding world].

“Thirdly, their dogmatizing is also congruent with human commandments and teachings that have a reputation for wisdom. These commandments and teachings have a positive reputation because they pertain to will worship and humblemindedness. This humblemindedness is not social humility that shows regard for others but an ascetic humility reflected in severe treatment of the body.

“The opponents would . . . consider their dogmatizing as a positive program that correctly integrates those who inhabit the cosmos into the cosmic order” (By Philosophy and Empty Deceit: Colossians as Response to a Cynic Critique, 1996, pp. 55-56).

With these and other considerations, Professor Martin concludes: “The entire complex relative clause in [Colossians] 2.23 that modifies the human commandments and teachings and concludes the apodosis [the results clause] of the conditional sentence that began in v. 20 can now be translated. Indeed, the entire conditional sentence of Colossians 2:20-23 Colossians 2:20-23 [20] Why if you be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are you subject to ordinances, [21] (Touch not; taste not; handle not; [22] Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? [23] Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body: not in any honor to the satisfying of the flesh.
American King James Version×
can be translated as follows:

“ ‘If you died with Christ, are you decreeing anything for yourselves from the elements of the cosmos as if you were living in the cosmos [i.e., the surrounding world order]? Are you decreeing anything for yourselves such as “Do not handle nor taste nor touch any of the things that are destined for destruction by human consumption?” Are you decreeing anything for yourselves according to human commandments and teachings that are for the fulfillment of the flesh although they have a reputation for wisdom on account of will worship and a humblemindedness consisting of severity to the body, not (a humblemindedness) consisting of honor to anyone?’” (ibid., pp. 54-55, emphasis in original).

These characteristics, Professor Martin concludes, appear to point to the ascetic Cynic philosophy as the one challenging the Colossians’ confidence in the divinely revealed wisdom that leads to eternal life through Jesus Christ. This philosophy of extreme asceticism that thrived at that time deceptively represented its teachings as embodying humility and wisdom. Paul is arguing against misguided human philosophy, not against the need to keep God’s law.

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